California writer and blogger John Marcotte is a comical guy with a mission. He believes that a logical consequence of that state’s Proposition 8, which limits marriage to a man and a woman, is to ban divorce. Since the advent of no-fault divorce, basically anyone can unilaterally split up for any reason, or no reason at all. Marcotte points to the hypocrisy of the citizens of the Golden State who, while anxious to preserve traditional marriage, obtain divorces at a pretty brisk clip. He has a point.

Apart from religious and cultural traditions, marriage is a civil contract that confers certain rights and responsibilities, like any commitment. Contracts exist to protect both parties, and allow them to plan accordingly. A tenant signs a two-year lease, and buys a sofa that fits in the living room. Relying on the income for the life of the lease, a landlord decides to upgrade the premises. One is hoping the rent will be paid promptly, and the other presumes that if he pays his rent, he and his sofa will not be on the sidewalk. There are penalties attached to either party breaking the agreement.

The marriage contract is the least binding of all – easier to break than a lease. For the last several decades, either party may choose to leave for any reason, no matter how frivolous, selfish or damaging to the family. That is the definition of no-fault divorce. It unilaterally negates the public contract entered into, after obtaining a municipal license, where both parties promised in front of witnesses “till death do us part.”

One may argue that personal family issues can be messy; why should civil entities become involved in personal, moral or religious codes? The answer lies, not in the religious or moral nature of marriage, but rather in its civil identity.

As with any other legal contract, because of “till death do us part,” both parties plan. One spouse may postpone education to help the other open a business. A spouse may leave a rewarding job to follow the other’s career move. Most importantly, spouses take on the immense burden of parenthood only because they consider themselves in a position to provide the best sort of environment to raise children.

A father wanted to be a strong presence in the life of his children, but now can only see them on Wednesdays and every other weekend. A wife wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, but now must work and the children go to day care. Decades of experience have shown that, in too many cases, the kids are worse off when their parents split, but concerned parents have no recourse. No matter how faithfully, sacrificially or even nobly one spouse may have fulfilled marriage vows, his or her partner can simply leave and incur no penalty.

Breaking the civil contract of marriage without serious reason should carry a price. Perhaps before we expand the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples, we should decide if marriage vows have any meaning at all.

• Virginia Seuffert moved from her native New York to Oak Park in 1988. Mother of 12 and grandmother of 14, she lectures on and writes about conservative issues, including Catholic family life and home schooling.

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